Might Mushrooms be More Than Magical?

Articles
May 22, 2009

Might Mushrooms be More Than Magical?

Our global food market allows us the privilege to choose from a great variety of produce year round. Seasonality has little meaning when you step foot into the grocery store. Unfortunately, there is some risk involved with imported produce from countries where pesticide use may not follow strict regulations like those enforced in the US. This is exactly the case with the mushrooms that Europe imported from China. A recent finding by the European Food Safety Authority regarding the presence of highly detectable nicotine levels found in mushrooms, sent red flags sailing in the European Commission. Although this phenomenon currently only concerns Europe, (note: we can not be entirely sure due to global trade and the mushroom’s country of origin) it is still of great interest to consumers and manufactures in the US. Nearly all wild mushrooms tested by European food companies in 2008, a whopping 99%, contained levels of nicotine that exceeded maximum residue limits (MRL). MRL is the safety limit regarding tolerable levels of pesticide residue on foods, set by individual countries or commissions; the European Union and USDA have separate MRL tolerances. The mushrooms in question, porcini, truffles and chanterelles, were grown in China. Although there might be naturally occurring nicotine in mushrooms, it is suspected that the highly detectable amounts are due to the use of nicotine as a pesticide.

Our global food market allows us the privilege to choose from a great variety of produce year round.  Seasonality has little meaning when you step foot into the grocery store.  Unfortunately, there is some risk involved with imported produce from countries where pesticide use may not follow strict regulations like those enforced in the US.  This is exactly the case with the mushrooms that Europe imported from China.

A recent finding by the European Food Safety Authority regarding the presence of highly detectable nicotine levels found in mushrooms, sent red flags sailing in the European Commission.  Although this phenomenon currently only concerns Europe, (note: we can not be entirely sure due to global trade and the mushroom’s country of origin) it is still of great interest to consumers and manufactures in the US.

Nearly all wild mushrooms tested by European food companies in 2008, a whopping 99%, contained levels of nicotine that exceeded maximum residue limits (MRL).  MRL is the safety limit regarding tolerable levels of pesticide residue on foods, set by individual countries or commissions; the European Union and USDA have separate MRL tolerances.  The mushrooms in question, porcini, truffles and chanterelles, were grown in China.  Although there might be naturally occurring nicotine in mushrooms, it is suspected that the highly detectable amounts are due to the use of nicotine as a pesticide.

Nicotine as a Pesticide?

Nicotine, an alkaloid (an organic substance containing carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, and sometimes oxygen) derived from the tobacco plant has been used as a pesticide since at least the 15th century.  Its main use was in greenhouses or enclosed spaces, where a smoke canister was set and allowed the nicotine laced smoke to fill the space.  This technique was not harmful for plants or farmers following safety regulations, but targeted pests like whiteflies.  In the US, nicotine is no longer acknowledged as an effective commercial pesticide; the FDA is currently processing the final cancellation for its use on non-food crops.  The EU is phasing out nicotine pesticides as well.  The last US food use registrations were cancelled in 1994, as were the residue tolerance levels.  Currently the MRL used is a default 0.01mg/kg.  It must be noted that nicotine concoctions are recommended in organic farming, but it is difficult to determine if any organic growers (small or large) are still using this practice.  Extensive research studies have not been conducted related to nicotine’s toxicity as a pesticide; and thus the FDA used a variety of references in determining to cancel the use of this substance.

Effect on Humans

Those who eat a varied and balanced diet consume trace levels of nicotine on a daily basis…Surprise!  This is because it is a naturally occurring compound (at very low levels) in tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, chili peppers and some teas.  At trace levels, pure nicotine is virtually harmless and has been thought by some to provide health benefits.  Nicotine is usually associated with cigarettes, which also contain up to 4,000 disease causing chemicals, giving nicotine and its addictive properties a bad reputation.  The benefits of pure naturally occurring nicotine have been studied (there is certainly a need for larger more conclusive studies) and at low levels may prove useful in some instances.

High levels of nicotine can be very toxic when ingested orally, and its toxicicity is dose responsive.  In the case of the Chinese mushrooms, the residual amount detected was minor, but when consumed, thought to induce mild increased heart rate, dizziness, and headache.  On the other extreme, high levels of nicotine, when ingested, are very toxic and consuming greater than 60mg (the amount contained in four cigarettes) is potentially lethal in adults.

Environmental Effects

In theory, because of its natural derivation, nicotine should prove harmless to the environment.  In practice, this is not the case.  In areas where pesticides containing nicotine were widely used, bees, an insect critical in the pollination and lifecycle of our crops, were abandoning their hives, thus not able to perform their critical function.  Bee keepers term this occurrence “colony collapse disorder (CCD).”  Nicotine is hypothesized by scientists to be one of several contributing factors to CCD.  Not only are the effects of nicotine based pesticides detrimental to bee colonies, but there has also been a noted decrease in honey production as well as huge losses in income for bee keepers.

Countries not included in the jurisdiction of the European Union or the United States continue to use nicotine to combat pests.  While the nicotine levels on mushrooms were recently detected in Europe, we at SupermarketGuru.com hope the US is screening the high volume of canned mushrooms that we import from China.  It is also our hope that this incident will prove beneficial in changing pesticide practices overseas.  In the mean time, be sure to thoroughly wash your produce with a cold stream of water before use to remove unwanted and potentially harmful residues.